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September 27, 2008

Sweet Bird of Youth

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Richard Brooks - 1962
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD

For reasons I can't explain, Sweet Bird of Youth is the one movie starring Paul Newman that I've seen the most, along with Exodus. Unlike Exodus, I had only seen Sweet Bird of Youth on television. This was in the days when watching a movie on television meant black and white pan and scan, plus some judicious editing of a Cinemascope and color movie. Not having had the opportunity to see the film theatrically, I finally saw Tennessee Williams' lurid story on DVD.

It is probably pure coincidence, but the main character's name is made up of the last names of the actor and his character in Rio Bravo. I am making an unintended connection here with John Wayne, his character of John Chance, and Williams' creation, Chance Wayne. Even more coincidentally, the play, Sweet Bird of Youth opened about a week before the premiere of Rio Bravo in March of 1959. More likely, Williams' name is a pun on "chance wane", with his protagonist living a life of ever decreasing opportunities and fortune. Of further possible coincidence is that an actor Howard Hawks originally wanted for Rio Bravo, Montgomery Clift, starred in the film version of Suddenly, Last Summer, which opened in December 1959.

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I remembered the basic story about a gigolo who shows up at a small Southern town with a drunk has-been actress, still in love with the daughter of the man referred to as "Boss". My memory of how the film ended was closer to what Williams wrote, rather than what actually happens on screen. Even though Chance Wayne is the main character of the play and film, he is less interesting than the characters that surround him, especially Boss Finley and his son, Tom. Paul Newman seems to recede when Ed Begley and Rip Torn, grinning with evil, appear. One of the supplements of the DVD is of a screen test with Geraldine Page and Rip Torn, with Torn performing the part of Wayne. While Torn does not have the Newman's charm or handsomeness, his performance suggests greater desperation and animal instinct in those few minutes.

Some of the political attitudes of Boss Finley and those who surround him are striking, fifty years later. What seemed like a parody of life below the Mason-Dixon line now is in some ways very much ingrained as part of the national political landscape, particularly the false presentation of family values and the dirty tricks that are officially disavowed. That the play was altered to be filmed does not seem to have created much damage. I can imagine the suggestion of an abortion to have been equal, or more disturbing than Wayne's causing his former love, Heavenly, to have a hysterectomy following infection from an unnamed venereal disease. Rip Torn's one whack on Paul Newman's face would have to suffice in place of castration. The film ends with the two damaged lovers driving off from Boss Finley's mansion, although one imagines that the future that awaits them is more squalid than that of Williams' other white trash characters.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at September 27, 2008 09:47 AM